Jeff Wilson (USGA photo)
If there’s a single image that communicates the character of Jeff Wilson
, newly-minted USGA champion, it’s from the early morning, every morning. That’s when Wilson, 55, takes a roughly two-and-a-half mile stroll with his 3-year-old Australian Shepherd, Herman. The dog being an early riser, Wilson has decided he might as well get him out of the house and make the loop around the driving range at Green Valley Country Club (in Fairfield, Calif.), where Wilson is a member.
“One thing led to another and pretty soon I start to bring a sand wedge with me,” Wilson said in describing his new morning habit. He would flip balls around the perimeter of the range while Herman got his exercise. He started rotating in other short irons and eventually, he started hitting a bucket.
This routine happens six days a week, and the repetition has taken Wilson’s game to new heights. All things considered, Herman may be the biggest recent influence on Wilson’s golf – not to mention his cholesterol – but there’s more to the story than that.
Writers and golf fans love the storyline that played out last week at Eugene (Ore.) Country Club, when Wilson earned his first USGA title despite playing USGA events since he was a junior golfer in the 1970s. He was the perpetual stroke-play guy, having medaled three times at the U.S. Mid-Amateur, twice at the U.S. Amateur and earlier in the week in Eugene.
As good as it felt to get his first actual title on Aug. 30, Wilson wasn't losing sleep over it.
“It never really bothered me that I hadn’t won a USGA title,” he said. “I think maybe it was written about more than it really bothered me.”
Wilson’s life hardly revolves around competitive golf. He builds an event into his schedule only when it works for him. Wilson learned a long time ago that if you’re not 100 percent committed to the tournament, you might as well not play it. He’s a practical, low-key (albeit competitive) personality who, in many aspects, isn’t very far removed from the kid who grew up hand-picking range balls for $2.05 an hour at Vallejo Golf Club.
“My dad said that was the last job I really had,” Wilson joked of the experience that first introduced him to the game.
These days, Wilson runs the family’s Toyota dealership in his hometown despite having moved roughly eight miles away to Fairfield, Calif. Wilson men have been in the automobile industry since Wilson’s grandfather opened a Ford dealership in Vallejo in 1941.
Wilson is a three-time Southern California Golf Association Mid-Amateur champion and was runner-up at this year’s Northern California Golf Association Mid-Amateur. Of course, there are a myriad of other titles, too. But Wilson would rather play a tournament where his buddies are than travel somewhere and not know anyone. That leads to several best-ball starts, and one in particular – the Johnnie O Twin Fin Tournament – with college teammate and lifelong friend Jeff Brehaut, who still plays professionally. The pair has teed it up at the event in Scottsdale, Ariz., the first week of January for the past 17 years. They won for the second time in 2018.
“It’s like two pros playing, we have two looks birdies most of the time. He’s a pro, basically,” Brehaut said.
A professional shot
Wilson played college golf at the University of Pacific. After graduating in 1985, he and Brehaut, now a notable teaching professional, traveled the mini-tour circuit together, living up and down the California coast. Wilson got his big break in 1990 when he made it on the PGA Tour, but after a few years, he returned home and started work at the Toyota dealership in 1994. He was reinstated as an amateur in 1997.
Brehaut still competes on the Champions Tour, but that life isn’t for Wilson. Not full-time, anyway. Wilson has competed in the U.S. Senior Open four times, and with this year’s low-amateur honors, he’s eligible again next year. In a way, that bodes well for Brehaut – the two friends won’t have to battle over a spot in next year’s qualifier.
For many years, Wilson worked on his game with Phil Rodgers, a PGA Tour player who lost the 1963 Open Championship in a playoff and later in life became a much sought-after teacher. Wilson described the endless time commitment a student would get from Rodgers – that he would sit out on the range with his students “and watch you practice until you just couldn’t do it anymore.”
Brehaut worked with Rodgers, too. They were known as "Jeff No. 1" and "Jeff No. 2," which is pretty fitting considering the level of friendship they have developed through this game.
Rodgers passed away on June 26, during Senior Open week. Wilson now consults Brehaut about his swing, but Brehaut also has a confidant in Wilson.
“We talk a lot on the phone or text, and when I’m playing in a tournament and I call him to talk about a good day or a bad day, he has perspective,” Brehaut said. “When I talk to him, like [U.S. Senior Amateur] week, I’m not giving him a bunch of advice. I think it helps him settle into his game. It’s just having a good ear to bounce things off of.”
Among the topics of those phone conversations during the Senior Amateur was Wilson’s length. Wilson was No. 2 in driving distance at the U.S. Senior Open, and drove it 30 yards or more past opponents at the Senior Amateur. Paired with 2017 U.S. Junior champion Noah Goodwin in the opening rounds of the U.S. Amateur at Pebble Beach, Wilson noticed that his drives were comparable.
“The second hole at Pebble, he hit one out there pretty far, and I think I got it about three yards by him,” Wilson said. “I told him when he grows up, he gets older and stronger, he’d be able to hit it out there with me.”
Wilson watched closely at the U.S. Am, and saw that the way younger players approach the game – bomb and gouge, you might call it – can have its benefits. It changed his strategy entering the Senior Amateur when he realized that getting as close to the green as possible, even if it’s in the rough, might be the better way to play.
“My driver is probably one of the best clubs in my bag,” he realized. “I said, ‘Well, you know, I could probably wear people down with it.’”
A new take on the game
From Brehaut’s perspective, Wilson got a big confidence boost from finishing as the low amateur – and T-31 — at the U.S. Senior Open, played at the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, Colo.
“He beat a lot of guys that are really good pros,” Brehaut said.
And from Wilson’s perspective? It all goes back to those mornings with Herman – that and all the other things that remind him why he loves this game, even when it’s a grind. Match play can often be that way – you’re feeling the heat, as Wilson describes it, all the time.
At Eugene Country Club, Wilson’s week began alongside a player who shot 84-80 to long miss the match-play cut, but he enjoyed every minute. The image stuck with Wilson.
“That’s passion for the game. It didn’t matter that he didn’t qualify,” he said. “… If I ever start stomping around out there, I’m going to think about him.”
There’s no doubt that Wilson’s fundamentals are in a good place – you can’t advance through a 64-man USGA match-play bracket if they aren’t. But to hear him talk about a long appreciation for the game itself, there’s no doubt his head is in the right place, too.